You have just reached an intersection and the traffic light is a steady yellow. Steady means that it is not flashing. There are no cars behind you and the road is dry. What should you do? Would your answer differ if you were still traveling at full speed when the light changed from green to yellow? Would your answer differ if there were cars close behind you and the road was wet or icy?
The meaning of a steady green light is clear: Go—if the intersection is clear and it is safe to do so. The meaning of a steady red light is also clear: Stop—completely. After you have stopped completely, if you wish to turn right, after you have checked that the intersection is clear of all pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles, you may do so. If you wish to turn left onto a one-way street, after checking carefully that it is safe to go, you may do so. The meaning of a yellow light, however, can sometimes seem less clear.
The one certain thing about a yellow light is that it is the brightest of the three traffic lights. We are meant to see it. Yellow, the brightest colour in the visible light spectrum catches our eye’s attention like no other. Studies have shown that black letters on a yellow background or yellow letters on a black background are the easiest colour combinations to read, especially at a distance.For this reason, most danger and warning signs on our roadways are in this colour combination. Yellow signs and signals on our roads are attention-getters that say, “Watch out, Be careful: Change is about to happen."
When the light changes from green to yellow, we are no longer being permitted to “go with the flow. The answer to the question: “What should you do at a yellow light when there are no cars behind you and the road is dry? is “Stop—completely." This answer comes directly from the statute law that defines the rules of our roads, the British Columbia Motor Vehicle Act (MVA). The MVA says when a driver approaches an intersection with a signal light that is yellow, the driver must stop the vehicle before entering the marked crosswalk on the near side of the intersection, or if there is no marked crosswalk then before entering the intersection…. But then the MVA adds, “unless the stop cannot be made in safety.
When might it be unsafe to stop at a yellow light? Our opening questions suggest some answers. If the light changes to yellow just as you reach the intersection, you may still not have started to slow down. Braking suddenly to stop, depending on the speed and distance of the cars behind you might be an unsafe action. Rear-enders and multi-car pile-ups happen when drivers fail to keep a proper distance behind the car in front and fail to anticipate change. The yellow light indicates that it is time for traffic in the direction you are traveling to stop. Depending on the speed and timing of the traffic flow, you may not be the right car to take the lead on stopping. In these circumstances, you need to drive through the intersection as carefully as possible. If the road is wet or icy so that suddenly stopping your vehicle might cause you to lose control of it, proceeding through the intersection may be the safest alternative.
But take warning: If the light is yellow and you drive through because it would be unsafe to stop, but you hit a pedestrian or another vehicle, you may be substantially to blame. Consider the common risks of entering an intersection at the end of a green light/beginning of a yellow light: if you drive straight through the intersection, you may encounter an impatient pedestrian who, knowing the light is about to change has jumped into the crosswalk ahead of time; or you may collide with the left-turner who has waited for the yellow light to ensure that oncoming traffic (except for you) will have stopped. If you turn right, you may encounter the late pedestrian, dashing out in front of you to catch the bus coming along the street the other way.
Recent British Columbia motor vehicle accident statistics show that intersections are dangerous places. In 2002, 44% of all collisions relating to traffic control devices occurred at intersections; of these, collisions relating to traffic signals were twice as common as collisions relating to stop signs. Of the accidents involving pedestrians, 51% occurred at intersections.
To help guard against these risks, when you see a yellow light, your best rule of thumb (and it is the law) is to think—“Stop!" The unless part of the rule permits you to proceed but with extra care and attention.
Cedric Hughes of Hughes and Company Law Corporation with contributions from Leslie McGuffin, LL.